Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Wherever I go, there I am . . .

The mess from my closet piled up in my bedroom is a reminder of (1) my pack-rat ways and (2) the oddly disorienting events of Thursday night. I can't explain my mood as the leak in the closet was hardly a traumatic event. I feel more out of whack with the universe than ever, as though life had been normal (which it had not) and then in one instant had been changed forever. Nothing has changed, and nothing has changed forever. But perhaps it is tied to all the other things going on that I don't want to talk about.

I will be relieved when everything is sorted through, cleaned up, and put away, as that may restore some of my sense normalcy—whatever that may be.

Saturday was a humid, dreary, dull day without any interest—no storms, no lightning, just overcast sameness. The garden was devoid of sunshine, butterflies, and birds, and even the constant din from Lake Shore Drive seemed muted. Everything seemed to be depressed and waiting for the "bend in the road" of the Anne of Green Gables books.

I finished a review and tried to take a nap, but now I can't sleep the sleep of the innocent. Something on my mind or in my heart, but I don't know what, won't let me relax. I ache.

The sun returned Sunday, and I thought my spirit might, too, but I felt just as painfully restless and unfocused.

I wrote another review, but I can't read any more than a few words at a time. Nor can I fall into the long, sweet obliviousness of the deep slumber I need.

I dreamed erotic dreams this morning.

J. keeps asking me if I am excited about my vacation in Ann Arbor, and I have to say that, right now, I'm not.

Wherever I go, there I am . . .

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review: Lois the Witch

Lois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell. Foreword by Jenny Uglow. Highly recommended.

The well-educated wife of a Unitarian minister in Victorian Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell must have understood the dangers of misused Christianity and religious intolerance in a closed community. In Lois the Witch, uncertainty surrounds Salem—deep forests, wild animals, and Indians who are thought to be savage pawns of Satan. In the midst of that untamed wilderness is a town full of people trying to be what they believe to be godly, each of whom lives in fear that he or she may not be among the chosen, the predestined of God.

Into this repressed, volatile setting arrives Lois Barclay, a young, attractive, pious English Anglican whose parents have died and who has come to live with her Puritan uncle and his family. Lois is different from her new family in every way. While she is warm, affectionate, empathetic, and genuinely and effortlessly godly, she soon discovers that her aunt is cold and proud ("Godly Mr Cotton Mather hath said that even he might learn of me; and I would advise thee rather to humble thyself"). Her older daughter, misnamed Faith, for she is agnostic, is both obsessive and unexpressive, and her younger daughter, misnamed Prudence, is sadistic and vicious. More disturbingly, her son, in his early twenties and unmarried, sees visions and hears voices, and not surprisingly, focuses his long-repressed sexuality on the gentle, attractive newcomer.

Haplessly, Lois becomes the focal point for this family's frustrations, fears, desires, jealousies, and, finally, hatred. She, like many of the "witches," is a victim of being different in a conformist society that is both filled with unfulfilled desires and afraid of the unknown.

In Gaskell's Salem, selfishness is rife. Lois's uncle "cried like a child, rather at his own loss of a sister whom he had not seen for more than twenty years, than at that of the orphan's [sic] standing before him, trying hard not to cry . . ." The son, Manasseh, is interested only in his own visions and "his own sick soul," while Prudence "only seemed excited to greater mischief" by the attention generated by her cruelties. This selfishness seems to be the natural result of a belief system in which the fate of one's soul is painfully uncertain and in which one is surrounded by evil. Selfishness and a desperate sense of self-preservation help to explain the moral blindness and the inability to look objectively within as the accusations start to flow and are willingly, almost eagerly, accepted as fact.

Sexual repression leads to fascination with the very subject. When Lois goes to the common pasture (on the edge of the forest where evil dwells), her thought is of a story in which a double-headed snake, "in the service of the Indian wizards," lures white maidens "to seek out some Indian man, and must beg to be taken into his wigwam, abjuring faith and race forever." To the white maidens of Gaskell's Salem, such tales hold terror and promise.

In the 86 pages of Lois the Witch, Gaskell succinctly sets the stage, defines the characters and the critical relationships, and shows how every innocent act and word are used against the bewildered Lois, whose fear is that she will have to share her cell with a real witch—because she too succumbs to the general paranoia. Selfish to the end, her aunt "summoned her to meet her at the judgement-seat, and answer for this deadly injury done to both souls and bodies of those who had taken her in, and received her when she came to them an orphan and a stranger." Ironically, it is the selfless Lois, who left England so she would not be the cause of a quarrel between her lover and his wealthy father, who, like Christ, pays the price for the sins of others.

Gaskell has taken a complex sociological matter, the Salem witch trials, and humanized it. This is a tiny gem of a story that leaves a deep impression.

Sunday, 29 July 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Review: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide by Douglas Adams. Highly recommended.

If finding out your house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a highway bypass is unnerving and life changing, imagine finding out the same is about to happen to your planet. Thus begin the adventures of human Arthur Dent in The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide by Douglas Adams.

Of course Adams is not the first writer to use science fiction to satirize the foibles of the human race and its institutions and culture (including science fiction), but he does does so with a rare combination of sophistication, style, and humor. His description of why the bypass is being built and why Arthur doesn't know about it alone starts the series off on a scathing note. In the universe of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the book within a book), people sometimes survive government and corporate bureaucracy and personal greed and thoughtlessness, but more often destruction and waste seem to result.

Throughout his post-Earth adventures with Ford Prefect, the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, fellow human Trillian (Tricia McMillan), and Marvin the perpetually downcast robot who takes lows to new highs, Arthur is the proverbial Everyman, whose struggles to make tea (and thus achieve some sense of ordinariness) in his new life result in near-destruction. At one point, he happily serves as "Sandwich Maker" on a pre-technological world that views this skill with awe.

Adams is perhaps strongest in his numerous asides in which he talks about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the publication for which Ford Prefect researches and writes, and the Encyclopedia Galactica; the nature of improbability; the humorously and seemingly invariable and inevitable tragic histories of various planets and races; and various theories surrounding such things as time, space, and infinity, almost always with a slyly serious wink about the absurdity of it all. These digressions allow his imagination and his intellect to soar and in many cases are more interesting than the story itself. This may go back to how The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy begins—that people want to move between Points A and B very fast, and that people at Point C in between (Everyman Arthur Dent) "often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be." There seem to be no Points A and B in Arthur's new universe; there are infinite points and lines and continuums, most of them absurd in one way or another.

With the exception of Trillian, Arthur's fellow travelers are well drawn. The most amusing is, sadly, Marvin, whose programmed depression is annoying and whose perception is accurate.

There are ingenious ideas scattered throughout the six stories, including the irony of a lorry driver who hates the perpetual rain that follows him no matter where he goes because, unbeknownst to him, he is a Rain God.

The problem is that many of these ideas, like life events, crop up randomly, play themselves out, and then seem to fall flat in the end. Undoubtedly, this is part of the universe as Adams sees it; it is made up of absurdity upon absurdity, which may not have neat Point A to Point B progressions. Some of this lack of cohesion also may be the result of transforming material written for episodic radio into book form; a certain sense and continuity may have been lost as the author diverts his tale to Points E, M, and T.

The first two books, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, are the best in the series. Life, the Universe and Everything is, almost as the title promises, too contorted and meandering. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, which takes place on Earth, lacks an engaging focal point, which makes it seem long and tedious at times. "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe" appears to be a throwaway story reflecting the author's views. Mostly Harmless, written at what Adams admitted was a bad time in his life, lacks the élan of the earliest books; it is more downbeat in attitude than its predecessors and borders on determined and grim. Marvin is long gone as comic relief; the weakest character, Tricia/Trillian, now moves to the forefront but without further development; and even Ford Prefect has sobered up, quite out of character. It as though Adams wanted his characters, most notably Random, to reflect his anger and depression and his universe to end without possibility of resurrection—in the same way that Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes.

Underneath the satire, the humor, and the bitterness, The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide is imaginative and thought provoking, revealing a rare story-telling and writing gift that is brilliant both on the surface and in the depths.

Saturday, 28 July 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

When it rains, it doesn't need to do so this literally

I did say when it rains, it pours, didn't I?

Idiot. Someone took me literally.

I thought I heard something in my kitchen when I came home, but I couldn't be sure because my hearing is poor and because there are all kinds of creaks from the door and things like that.

At about 9:45 p.m., I got off the phone with a friend and passed the kitchen—and noticed yellow water all over the kitchen floor by the stove.


I opened the bedroom closet, which is where the water came down the last time there was a leak and which is where I should have looked at 7:00 p.m., when I had a suspicion. I can't believe I didn't remember that from before.

My mind has been on other things this week.

The entire wall is wet. Soaked.

I called the building engineer, who even now is pounding away upstairs, then took everything off the floor of the closet. And by everything I mean a ton of stuff.

I am a pack rat, alas.

When he fixes the leak, I'm hoping he can bring a wet-vac and clean up the carpet in the closet and bedroom, as well as the one in the main hallway, because they are all soaked.

I imagine the wall will have to be looked at as well.

All because my mind was on other things and I didn't remember to look in the closet.

I feel down about this (not to mention tired, as my intention was to get to sleep early tonight), but as I told Sharon downstairs—I am not in Gloucester.

In other words, it could be much worse.

But still, when it rains, it pours.

I will be happy, I think, when this week is over.

Monday, July 23, 2007

From Bristol Renaissance Fair

Originally uploaded by dschirf
"My, what a handsome pillow it is!"

Those late-night calls

Friday's doings—Aside from what happened during the day, I came home to find that my DSL connection, down overnight Thursday for maintenance, had not been restored to working order. This prompted a lengthy call that started with level 1 support and finally made it to level 2. This did not result in the connection actually starting to work.

On Saturday, when I disconnected the Ethernet cable I broke a tiny piece of plastic off the port. Although this doesn't seem to affect its ability to grip the cable or its functionality, still . . . it irks me.

Later, "Victor" called to tell me my connection should be working, and Sunday morning after I reset everything, it did indeed work, albeit not at as fast a speed as I would expect, and the ACT light is out. By the way, when I say "later," I mean, "later." "Victor" called me at 11:00 p.m. my time on Saturday. In my stupor I picked up the phone halfway through his voicemail and inadvertently hung up on him. I was tired. The next morning I found it amusing that "Victor," halfway around the world, had no concept of my local time, or that PMS had driven me to a level of crankiness that demanded the immediacy of a late-night update.

When it rains, it pours.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Perfect weekend II

Can it be possible? Two perfect summer weekends in Chicago? In the same month? In July?

Yes, for yesterday and today were everything a Western-New-Yorker-at-heart like me could want—sunny skies, sometimes with interesting cloud patterns; comfortable temperatures in the 70s/80s; slight breezes; and humidities that don't melt you like the Wicked Witch of the West (unlike the tropical 92 percent earlier in the week). The happiness of great weather made me even more determined not to let the intimidation and threats from Friday ruin my sacred free time, which, alas, passed too quickly.

I spent much of yesterday and today in the garden, writing, reading, dozing off, and watching the two young rabbits as well as a tiny mouse that lives by the pool shower under the walk. I wonder about the visual acuity of mice, because it seems to notice me only if I move. I was relieved to see the second rabbit, the smaller one with the white streak on its forehead, and both together, as I had seen only the other one for about a week. It may be my imagination, but they seem a little less bold lately, and they are getting large as young things do. They are growing up, and I miss the babies they were only a couple of weeks ago.

J. came over today, bearing gifts as he usually does, including a blueberry pancake mix from Oklahoma that is beautifully packaged in a cloth bag tied with ribbon. I plied him with apricot tea from Freehling Pots and Pans, then we sat in the garden and shared mustard and pretzels from Hannah's Bretzel ("twisted and tasty since 1477"). We went to Orly's for a light dinner, then had flower tea in the garden, served in my Fire-King jadeite cups. So civilized.

Fortunately my friends the rabbits made numerous appearances, although they probably tired of our movements and our pursuit of them with his camera. We took a quick walk around Promontory Point, then got his stuff together so he could catch the bus to downtown to make the 8:45 p.m. train. When we came through the garden, we startled a rabbit, who ran straight into the bushes—whence its sibling, equally startled by this sudden incursion, flew out.

Early in the afternoon, before J. arrived, I saw a butterfly alight on one of the evergreens and cautiously walked over to look. I could see only the underside of its wings, which seemed to be a dark powder blue with outlined orange spots around the lower edge. I should get a field guide; I never expected to see different butterflies here.

I hope the weather is like this when I am in Ann Arbor.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Riders on the storm

Caught this as a storm built up from the west during an hour's time. It's coming down now in horizontal sheets, with lots of great lighting and sound effects. Time to curl up and read.

Edit: It became much more violent later. At one point there were 5–6 nearly simultaneous flashes.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. Edited by Herbert Rosengarten with an introduction by Margaret Smith. Highly recommended.

The elaborate Victorian prose style of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does not obscure a story that is recognizably modern—that of an idealistic young woman who wants to save her brutish, alcoholic husband from himself.

Reviled for its "morbid love for the coarse, not to say the brutal," The Tenant of Wildfell Hall continues the theme Brontë began in Agnes Grey—that nurture's role in shaping in a person's character and future is more important than parents and other authority figures realize or take responsibility for. As Helen says of Arthur, she wants "to do my utmost to . . . make him what he would have been if he had not, from the beginning, had a bad, selfish, miserly father . . . and a foolish mother who indulged him to the top of his bent . . . doing her utmost to encourage those germs of folly and vice it was her duty to suppress."

Helen's background is also revealing. Raised by her uncle and aunt, she exemplifies the modern concept of the adult child of an alcoholic—self-righteous and controlling. Knowing that Arthur is flawed, she marries him with the objective of changing him and saving him for God. It can be speculated that Arthur, intrigued by Helen's youth, beauty, passion, and apparent demureness, envisions making her a more worldly woman. Neither knows the other beyond the surface, and each seems to want to transform the other into his or her own image. This is not the basis for a happy or durable union, as Helen learns.

Failing to control the father, Helen turns her attentions to her son. Quite rightly, she is horrified when Arthur makes his son a pawn in their marital battle, teaching him the manly Victorian arts of sport and predation, love of drinking and carousing, camaraderie without friendship, and disrespect for and the subjugation of women. Even Brontë seemed to be aware that Helen's approach is also disturbing in its own way, for the child-rearing debate between Helen and her new neighbors is the basis for an entire chapter before we learn her history. While many of Brontë's contemporaries would have agreed with the vicar's argument that experience builds character, Helen slowly reveals how experience of the wrong kind without a moderating influence can destroy character.

The structure of the novel is undoubtedly awkward; it is unlikely that anyone would share such intimate details and thoughts as well as another person's entire personal journal with even the dearest friend without a compelling reason. Gilbert, who is introduced, perhaps symbolically, as a hunter of predators (hawks), disappears from the story as he reads Helen's tale. This diminishes him, relegating him to Helen's redemption and reward. On occasion, for example, in "Domestic Scenes," Brontë's tense changes and irregularities make Helen's journal lose its currency and distract the reader with lapses into a novel-like tone.

The structure does, however, allow the reader (and Gilbert) to meet the reclusive, protective, guarded, almost-grim Helen before we find out about the life that has shaped her and her inflexible opinions. The revelation of her character, and the strength she has to flout convention when her conscience and sense of duty require it, helps to complete Gilbert's growth from sarcastic village wit to the kind of mature man more worthy of her.

Brontë's stated purpose was "to tell the truth, for the truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it . . . Let it not be imagined, however, that I consider myself competent to reform the errors and abuses of society, but only that I would fain contribute my humble quota towards so good an aim . . . ." Helen's story, like that of Agnes, reveals the uglier aspects of Victorian family life, usually idealized, that resulted when women had few rights, men abused theirs, parents did not take responsibility for instilling healthy values (such as respect for life) in their children, and divorce was out of the reach of most. Beyond the impressive gates and parks, within the stately estates, behind the closed doors, lurked family and social problems that could not be hidden or denied away. Helen's story was disturbing not because of her depiction of Arthur's demeaning, childish, and amoral behavior, but because she exposes the falseness of the idyllic family life her society held dear and because she is willing to abandon what society considers her duty to her marriage to perform her real duty to herself and her son.

Anne Brontë's work has been compared unfavorably to that of her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Yet its psychological insights, including the very coarseness and brutality of which contemporary critics complained, make up for Brontë's lack of literary finesse. Her portrayal of Arthur, the fun-loving, amoral, pettish, selfish hedonist, and his boorish social circle resonates today. Despite his country gentleman status and his debt-supported wealth, Arthur is recognizable in all times and classes. Helen, too, is familiar as the long-suffering wife who finally takes action when her child is threatened.

Although much has changed since Brontë's time, her characterizations and insights on family life hold true today, making The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a classic in its own right.

Sunday, 15 July 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Dream: Three o'clock genie

I was in a huge banquet hall feeling lost and alone among all the people. I recognized some from high school or college, but I didn't know any of them well enough to approach and ask for a seat. I debated with myself about how they would react, and was petrified that it would be with either anger or, worse, indifference.

I saw a boy, D., who had been in a college band I knew and had accepted my online invitation, and I offered to perform with him, but his eyes slid over me coldly as though he had no idea of who I was or what I was talking about.

Then I fell in with J. S., a girl from my high school home room, who was staying at the hotel where this gathering was being held and who said I could come to her room while her husband was out.

Her room seemed very odd, and when she said she was going upstairs, she climbed rungs built into the bathroom wall. This seemed dangerous to me, and I realized that ascending them was something I could not do.

When she came back, I noticed there was a red, ropy pole from the bed to the ceiling, as though it were a support. I remarked that I had a canopy bed in my room (which I had just remembered). This pole, it turned out, was the arm of a genie in a bottle, and now she wanted him to serve as a clock. She told me to set him, but I could not get the syntax right at first. Finally, I said something like "O'clock—three," and the arm that wasn't holding up the ceiling snapped to the three position.

She and started to play some kind of typical board game, like Monopoly, using the bed as the board and characters like the genie—living, breathing, whimsical creatures.

The details of what she took for granted were remarkable in every way, yet I kept thinking that this was very ordinary way to pass the time that I could do on my own and that perhaps married or sociable people like the ones downstairs at the banquet did not have private lives that were any better or more interesting than my own. I did not find this revelation reassuring, and it did not make me feel less forlorn.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A jaunt to Bristol Renaissance Faire

If last weekend was perfect, this one aims to be hellish. By 11:00 a.m. the temperature was over 90ºF, with a high of 96ºF predicted.

I slept through any cool part of the morning, waking up at 8:15 a.m. This was late for me, even on a weekend, because yesterday J. and I went to the Bristol Renaissance Faire, arriving at about 5:30 p.m., then to Apple Holler.

This was the opening day of the faire, which didn't seem to be that crowded, at least at that time. It did not feel unbearably hot, and I enjoyed the illusion of being in a village in the woods on a sunny day, with light filtering through the trees.

When we crossed the bridge not far from the entrance, with the help of a child we spotted a turtle in the water, eating what appeared to be soggy bread. J. pointed it out to some others who came along. Is it a sign of our alienation from nature that adults and children alike become excited at the sight of a turtle in a pond?

I include myself in this observation. I lingered to watch the turtle; I searched the trees for the birds whose unfamiliar calls I could hear. I was delighted when two red admirals used me for a landing pad in the Flamingo's garden. I was thrilled when two baby rabbits at the Flamingo approached me Friday evening and sat almost under my table, only a few feet away. Then one lay down in the "loaf" position under the other chair, looking at me and seeming to be utterly relaxed, even when I collected my things as darkness descended, got up, and walked away. The most common wild animals have the power to enchant most of us.

(I do not see them now, at midday, when I suspect the heat has driven them into shade of the bushes and flowers.)

At BRF, we walked around, and J. shopped and took photos (including one of three male vendors who said something like, "Hey, aren't you going to take our photo?"). A wench tried to tempt J. into knife throwing. "Show your wife what you can do with your knife!" Not having heard the last part, he was bemused by his "promotion to husband," while I pointed out the usual innuendo about weaponry.

I still enjoy the BRF, as much for the location as anything else. The first time I attended was on a perfect day, sunny yet comfortable, and then the setting and the scene were new to me.

At Apple Holler, I had to drag J. away from feeding the goats. He claims they are hungry, although their healthy looks and bellies belie that idea. We had a good time; it amused both of us to observe that the cooks behind the "Welcome to our country kitchen" sign did not evoke images and memories of Aunt Bee.

As we headed to the car, J. told me he was going to say good-bye to the goats but that he wasn't going to feed them. After 10 minutes, he came back and told me which ones he'd fed. Boys and their petting zoos . . . the last image I have is of two goats high up on their bridge silhouetted the fading light of sunset.

On the tollway, we came to a plaza where traffic was backed up; it took us 20 minutes or more to get through, yet it was clear on the other side. Two lanes through the plaza were closed, with a bright red "X" visible over each of them for probably 1/4 mile. Dozens of drivers slyly came down the right-hand closed lane, which of course wasn't backed up, and insistently cut in front of those of us who were patiently waiting in the queue (and making our wait even longer). The lesson was: Drive legally and respectfully, and wait more than 20 minutes for your turn; drive illegally, arrogantly, and dangerously, and wait no more than 5 minutes (and undoubtedly cause/add to the long wait in line).

And now I'm hot and drowsy and amazed by the European sparrow's capture of an insect mid-air that I just witnessed . . .

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Slywy's day off

For several weeks my friend J. has been talking about going to White Fence Farm in Romeoville, which he remembers fondly from his childhood. He called me the night of July 3, and we settled on the July 4th holiday for the trip.

Tampier Lake
After he picked me up from the Homewood Metra station, we headed toward Orland Park. From there, we drove north and then took 135th and 131st Streets. Along 131st Street, we passed over Tampier Lake twice. J. had not heard of this 160-acre reservoir lake and was struck by its size and beauty. The places where the road passed over it reminded me of something from home in Western New York, although I'm not sure what—perhaps a place along the scenic route from the South Towns to Niagara Falls.

J. thinks that, if the lake level rises, the road is closed until the water recedes. I wondered if the road was built without elevated bridges because the water level is constant or manageable. Without the elevation of a bridge, I experienced a fleeting sensation of driving on the water that was heavenly.

That aside, the combination of interesting clouds, green vegetation, and sparkling water made it look like a lovely place for a picnic. I read later that Tampier Lake is also a popular boating and fishing destination.

White Fence Farm
To our surprise, it is not hard to find White Fence Farm, which is owned by members of the Hastert family (the people who gave us former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert). I did not know what to expect, although I did anticipate something a little like Apple Holler in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.

Once a 450-acre farm, White Fence Farm seems to have been reduced by surrounding development to the restaurant and carryout kitchen buildings, parking lot, and a relatively small petting zoo area (chickens, goats, sheep, and llamas). All around were office parks and other suburban sprawl monstrosities.

Beyond the animal enclosure was what appeared to be a liquor distributor, a nondescript warehouse building with Bacardi trucks parked behind it. J. did not remember that, and I suspect the open space he recalls was farmland that was sold off. We saw another example of this along the way; we passed a corner planted with what may have been soybeans but also with a prominent sign touting available commercial lots for a future plaza in that very spot.

So White Fence Farm was not at all like Apple Holler, which has some land and which is not immediately surrounded by development—yet.

Still, the restaurant is charming, with numerous rooms decorated with all kinds of nostalgic pieces and memorabilia. Unfortunately, I can't recall the name of the room that we were led to, although I can still feel the glassy eye of what I believe was an elk head staring impertinently at me from the wall.

The service was very prompt, although the server's eyebrow piercings didn't give me a "down home on the farm" feeling so much as an "art school aspirant" one.

As White Fence Farm is known for its fried chicken, that's what we ordered. I'm not keen on fried foods, but this was good, not greasy, although a little bland. The "relishes" (pickled eggs, cole slaw, bean salad, and cottage cheese, along with corn fritters) were good if you like authentic American country cuisine. We also split apple pie à la mode, which was excellent. The service and the food, combined with the hewn wood ceiling beams and the dense décor, made it an enjoyable experience.

It wasn't until the end, though, that I noticed the best part. Although there were two parties of 15+ people in the room, it was not at all noisy. This was probably because there was no music whatsoever thumping away, which meant that no one had to raise his or her voice to talk over it. That alone was delightful.

We checked out the animals, which were locked up. J. was determined to feed them pellets from the vending machine, but although the goats came over and showed interest in us, they fled when I showed them the pellets. Apparently, they can do better. The sheep needed to be sheared, especially given the hot weather expected this weekend, but they are kept in no worse conditions than many non-factory farm animals. I do hope the llamas are walked regularly, because the enclosure seemed small for them.

There was some aggression among the goats, one of which seemed to need milking. At least the chickens appeared not to be destined for the dinner plate. One of them snapped up a fly that got too close. That was amazing.

Ile à la Cache
After we left, we passed Ile à la Cache, a museum dedicated to the history of the Indian-French fur trade—an odd and interesting concept. We made a mental note that we might like to visit it someday.

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve (DuPage County)
At some point, J. must have spotted a sign for Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County because he became determined to see it. We checked out a map in one of the parking lots and discovered that Waterfall Glen surrounds Argonne National Laboratory. We would have to navigate our way around the laboratory to find the parking lot and trail closest to the waterfall. In the meantime, we skimmed the Tick Times, which clued us in as to how inappropriately we were dressed to discourage the little bloodsuckers.

Amazingly, we did find the right parking lot and, after referring to the map, the correct rail. We even made the right decisions at branching points.

To my amusement, when we asked a man walking toward us if he was coming back from the waterfall, he responded with, "Yes, it's about two blocks that way." I told J. that only a city slicker would refer to distance in the heart of the forest in terms of blocks!

By now it was about 45 minutes before sundown, and we noticed how much darker the deep woods are even when the sun is shining and the clearings are bright. The air was still, and the silence was interrupted only by strange bird calls and distant fireworks. In the woods at dusk, it's easier to understand the fear of evil influences that Nathaniel Hawthorne describes in "Young Goodman Brown."

When we came to a slight slope, J. muttered, "Oh, boy." I'm heavier than he is, but my Pennsylvania/New York heritage can carry me up all but very steep or very long hills. He managed, but I imagine he's since discovered unknown muscles in his legs.

The waterfall is quite lovely, if not impressive. It is probably less than the height of a man, but it flows noisily over what appear to be artificially arranged slab rocks. A sign mentioned a dam. The surrounding trees are dense, and it seemed a beautifully isolated spot at that time of evening. While J. took photos, I followed the flights and landings of a mating pair of powder-blue dragonflies. That alone was worth the walk.

As we headed back, I laughed to see J. feeling around himself and scratching. The Tick Times had done an excellent job of making him feel like he was covered with ticks. Ah, the power of suggestion.

We had reached one of those points where the trees were dense and the fading light was especially dim when I noticed it—the twinkling lights of hundreds of fireflies against the verdant background, switching on and off randomly so that the woods seemed to sparkle.

We dwelled on the spot for a while to marvel at the effect and agreed that this was more lovely and magical than any fireworks display. To think it happens every summer day in that very spot . . .

With sunset past, we left reluctantly and found our way to I-55, the Stevenson, our route to my apartment. Even here we witnessed an incredible sight—dozens of fireworks exploding on both sides of the expressway the entire length of the drive. There could not have been a more appropriate ending to our 4th of July adventure.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A perfect weekend

This is as perfect a weekend as I could have hoped for.

• The daytime sky is clear and sunny, and the local cardinals are celebrating through their calls and songs.

• Last night's sky was lighted by a mysterious, hazy moon, just past full, sexily yet demurely draped behind the wisps of clouds. Friday's blue moon, the second full moon of the month, was less shy.

• The temperature is warm and cool enough to be comfortable. Days like these, rare as they are in Chicago, remind me of a lifetime nearly 30 years ago in a different place.

• Between the farmers market Thursday and trips to the market yesterday and today, I have enough blue corn chips, strawberries, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, coffee, tea, and other comforts to feel that my castle is well stocked against invaders like sad days and depression.

• Two people independently told me that I look like I'm losing weight. I checked, and I'm not. In fact, I've gained a little. It appears like a newly opened bra is doing its job and providing lift and support.

• Yesterday my friend and I went to our favorite quirky restaurant in Frankfort, Illinois, for dinner. Afterward, we watched evening arrive on a chariot of glowing pink, orange, and blue while I gently persuaded two twilight fireflies to land on my hand for a moment. Later we observed a flower tea blossom in a glass teapot to reveal a clover-like center.

• I've seen three species of butterfly in the Flamingo's garden this weekend, including a red admiral, possibly a gray comma, and one that was predominantly yellow. The red admiral startled me by landing on my T-shirt's right sleeve. Its impact was surprising, and I could feel amazing strength in the legs that gripped the material. Its antennae were beautiful in their closeness and clarity.

• For some reason this morning I turned to look slightly behind me, where only 10 feet away a cardinal couple were poking about in the grass. The male flew onto the branch of a small tree to keep an eye out for his mate's safety while she tried to swallow a morsel too big for her bill.

• I witnessed an aggressive female European sparrow driving off a male, who would periodically pause and spread his wings in seeming threat or submission; given her response, it was hard to tell. His attitude only provoked her more, as she pounced on him again and again. This ground chase ended only when he flew off into a bush out of her way. I have seen that kind of aggression before only in males determined to mate. (I mean sparrow males, of course.)

• A male cardinal just landed eight feet from me, as though I were not even here. He flew off only because someone from the pool walked past and disturbed him.

All this has made me feel alive and good, despite the onset on Thursday of the Monthly Necessity. When I return to the inanity and insanity that my everyday life has become, perhaps the memories of the butterfly on my arm, the fireflies on my hand, the loving cardinal couple, and the squabbling sparrows will help to put the egotism, the pettiness, and the foolishness into the perspective they deserve.